Through the Eyes of a Two-Year-Old
The author describes the life-long effects of a trauma in childhood.
Posted Jan 15, 2018
At age 2, I died.
I remember it clearly. It was 1948 and I was deathly sick. Later I would know that I had had the measles, but, at the time, I knew only that I was feverish and I hurt all over. I felt untethered to the ground, floating in a bubble of misery—dizzy, in pain and in fear. I was dying, I knew. Alone in my crib, I did not cry out for I already knew that no one would come. And as I remember, I relive.
Part of me did not survive that time. That is the part that knows death, that has always known death, and that has always been afraid. That is the part that is haunted by the terrifying proximity of oblivion, of the gaping chasm of eternal darkness. That is the part that died.
Physically, part of me did die that night. My right ear has not functioned since then, and another part, a larger part, never stopped being that gravely ill, alone little boy. That little boy fears the night still, in the 71-year-old man the little boy has mysteriously become. That little boy still looks death in the eye every night, in the shadows of the almost dark. That little boy still hears the sounds that cannot be heard, in the quiet of a naively slumbering world, and desperately strives to stay alert. For, death walks the night, in monstrous guise, seeking its unconscious victims. And the little boy hugs the rim of the endless abyss, terrified always of slipping away forever.
Even as a teen, when others knew they were immortal, the little boy knew he was not, for he carried his death with him wherever he went and whatever he did.
And what is death to the little boy, and therefore to me, the little boy grown? It is vanishing, as if he never were. It is the end of the memories that he nurtures, the memories so rich and poignant, the memories that make sense of a lifetime and that integrate his life, the memories that extend to others and that connect, the memories of those cherished loved ones now long gone, the memories he has shared, but that only he retains. It is the end of mattering in this world, to those he loves and to those he does not yet know. It is as if he never was.
And yet, this is what life was like for the little boy, and for the teenager he became, and for the adult the teenager became later. To his parents, he was never really here, his memories were dismissed as if fabricated. His parents did not consider him to be a person, with feelings and thoughts of his own, as if come some fantastical moment on a magical day in the indefinite future, he would achieve personhood. He had no effect on them, except possibly to make them angry, as if an inconvenience. He could be ignored in a moment, in deference to another, as if suddenly invisible. It was as if he never was. He lived an “as if” life, which was, in truth, an imitation death.
Determined to live, the little boy fought to discover life, true life, and, over many years of struggle, the man he became found it, or perhaps, more realistically, he built it. Yet, to this day, I, the man he became, carry death with me, in untouched recesses of my heart and in unlit corners of my memory. And still, my 71-year-old self carries that fear, the same fear as my 2-year-old self. Even yet it walks at night, haunting my waking hours and staying much-needed sleep.
And what happened 69 years ago when I died? That I know now what occurred in that distant era matters little. For what I know now is that my brother contracted polio and was hospitalized, and even kept in isolation with no actual human contact, for a period of months. What I know now is that my father had a heart attack, his second, and returned after weeks or perhaps months in the hospital, a changed man. He became a man deathly afraid to invest in life. What is important is this. How did my 2-year old self perceive and internalize the events of 1948? This, after all, is his story. These, then, are his words.
We were a family of four—my mother, father, brother and me. My brother was 8 years old. And then, one morning, he was gone. Once, I overheard whispers of illness, but then, never another word about him, as if he never was. My questions about him received no answers, no reaction except a stern and cautionary look between mother and father. We were now a family of three.
And then, another morning, and father was gone, just vanished, like my brother. The ambulance had come in the early light and there was no one left but mother and me. She murmured something about illness, but would speak no more about him. So, now we were a family of two, with no explanation.
And then there was one. Soon mother was gone as well, with no hug, no kiss, no goodbye. And I was alone but for the grandmother, now a poor stand-in for the family that once I knew. That was when the illness came for me.